Study Guide

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents Language and Communication

By Julia Alvarez

Language and Communication

In halting Spanish, Yolanda reports on her sisters. When she reverts to English, she is scolded, "En español!" The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. (1.1.27)

It's funny the way language works. If you don't use it, you lose it! Yolanda's experience makes us think that it must be tricky for a lot of people who are bilingual to switch between one language and another.

That poet she met at Lucinda's party the night before argued that no matter how much of it one lost, in the midst of some profound emotion, one would revert to one's mother tongue. He put Yolanda through a series of situations. What language, he asked, looking pointedly into her eyes, did she love in? (1.1.62)

Okay, creepy dude seems to have some sort of mystical idea about native language being primal. But the fact that he's obviously trying to get into Yolanda's pants kind of ruins his argument. What do you think?

"Miz Poet is so goddamn sensitive to language." (1.3.145)

Sandi is being sarcastic here, but you know what? Yolanda is really sensitive to language. She makes the case that words are super important in the next chapter, "Joe."

Yolanda, nicknamed Yo in Spanish, misunderstood Joe in English, doubled and pronounced like the toy, Yoyo—or when forced to select from a rack of personalized key chains, Joey [...] (1.4.1)

What's in a name? A person's name is pretty connected with their identity, wouldn't you say? So the fact that Yolanda has so many nicknames, in both Spanish and English, might suggest that she feels like she has a lot of different identities.

"I love you," John said, rejoicing, tricked by the barks and the howls.
But Yolanda was afraid. Once they got started on words, there was no telling what they could say. [...]
"Do you love me, Joe? Do you?" he pleaded. He wanted words back; nothing else would do. (1.4.13-16)

What's with Yolanda's hesitancy to say "I love you" to John? It's not because she doesn't think the words are important... in fact, it's quite the opposite. Words are super important. It's because they're so powerful that she feels like they should be careful about what they say.

Yo's words fell into the dark, mute cavern of John's mouth. [...] And Yo was running, like the mad, into the safety of her first tongue, where the proudly monolingual John could not catch her, even if he tried. (1.4.45)

John so does not understand Yolanda's word games. Come to think of it, there's a whole part of Yolanda that John doesn't get—the Spanish-speaking part. If John is "proudly monolingual," it means he's not really interested in getting to know that part of Yolanda. (Side note: the bit about Yolanda running "like the mad" seems like a hint about her coming breakdown and visit to the mental hospital.)

"What you need is a goddamn shrink!" John's words threw themselves off the tip of his tongue like suicides.
She said what if she did, he didn't have to call them shrinks.
"Shrink," he said. "Shrink, shrink." (1.4.46-48)

Once again, Yolanda is sensitive to the use of language (in this case the use of the word "shrink" to mean "psychologist"), and John doesn't get it. He keeps using the word, just to make her mad. (A tactic commonly known as the annoying-little-brother technique.)

He is saying I love you, she thought! "Babble," she mimicked him. "Babble babble babble babble." Maybe that meant, I love you too, in whatever tongue he was speaking. (1.4.105)

Whoa... what's going on here? Communication seems to have completely broken down here. But as you may have noticed, this crisis isn't completely out of the blue. John and Yolanda haven't understood each other for a long time. The babbling just makes it really obvious.

She has developed a random allergy to certain words. She does not know which ones, until they are on the tip of her tongue and it is too late, her lips swell, her skin itches, her eyes water with allergic reaction tears. (1.4.141)

This is how we know how important words are to Yolanda—they actually have the power to make her sick. Certain words give her an allergic reaction. Hm... maybe her entire mental breakdown has something to do with language.

His vocabulary turned me off even as I was beginning to acknowledge my body's pleasure. If Rudy had said, Sweet lady, lay across my big, soft bed and let me touch your dear, exquisite body, I might have felt up to being felt up. But I didn't want to just be in the sack, screwed, balled, laid and f***ed my first time around with a man. (1.5.26)

For Yolanda, the words used to talk about sex are just as important as the physical act. Words and language aren't a separate, secondary reality; they're a part of reality.

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